Dare to Lose, Dare to Win! The Struggle Against Gentrification in New York City

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An armoured police truck used against the New York squatting movement(Source: Interference Archive)

Indigenous peoples of the Americas began their struggle against white colonizers in 1492. America as we know it was born out of the defeat of this indigenous resistance to displacement. Displacement, however, is not just the midwife of the settler state but is a key tool and feature of US capitalism. From the initial settling, to the great forced migration of Blacks out of the south, to modern-day gentrification (where the wealthy purchase real estate in urban areas and displace residents) capitalism has needed displacement to survive. Those of us who are anti-capitalists need a strategy that moves us towards not simply slowing, but ending, forced displacement.

As World War II drew to a close and de-industrialization began, American capitalists saw an investment opportunity in building new homes in suburban areas outside major cities for white middle-class families. After the post-war boom, however, lured again by capital interests and the possibility of increasing property values upon investment in the now-cheap urban areas, capitalists’ eyes turned once again towards the city, and soon white people (and investment) were pouring back into cities - and pushing out the existing, typically low-income and non-white residents. By the 1980’s, gentrification was in full swing across America.

In 1949, the Federal Housing Act launched “urban renewal projects,” which replaced substandard housing with middle class development. By 1959, it would displace 100,000 people around the country, disproportionately people of color. New York City planner Robert Moses pushed through many of these controversial projects, including the Cross Bronx Expressway, whose construction required the demolition of 193 buildings housing some 1,500 families. As resident Lillian Edelstein recalls,

"My husband told me, 'We have to move out in 90 days. There is nothing you can do.' And I said, 'No way.' So we formed a tenants' association. On October 14, 1953, I organized a rally which was standing room only. Every tenant who could walk was there.”

The tenants’ organized resistance was initially successful in winning support from important figures, including the Mayor. The tenant's proposed an alternative that would have displaced residents from only six buildings and razed a bus depot. Moses refused this option and displaced 1,500 families.

As neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s, the real estate and landlord lobby dealt serious blows to the rent control system. Despite increasing homelessness, landlords exacerbated the affordable housing crisis by warehousing empty apartments in anticipation of development that would allow them to charge higher rents in the future. Tenants in the housing movement responded by squatting these vacant apartments. Frank Morales, a leader of the squatting movement, explained the strategy,

“'We saw the taking of buildings as part of a counterattack in this spatial war… [one that was] both affirmative, taking buildings to create free space and extend space where there was no speculation; and defensive, defending the squats that had already been taken, and thereby slowing the real estate pressures, which in turn helped preserve low rent housing in the area."

The political and legal battles between the city and squatters escalated. Eventually, the city resorted to military force to evict squatters from five of the areas on 13th Street. For days, the squatters built barricades, set booby-traps, and welded their doors shut . Ultimately, they were no match for the $1 million, swat teams, snipers, and armored tanks that the city sent to displace them, and they were easily evicted within 24 hours.  Rather than becoming demoralized by the defeat, the rest of the squatting movement drew inspiration from their comrades’ resistance and a summer of actions followed.

Nonetheless, by the early 2000s, only 11 squats remained on the Lower East Side. Squatters finally negotiated a deal with the city where they won occupancy of their homes and created permanent affordable housing for the neighborhood; however, as part of the new deal, they had to put their properties on the market and take on a considerable debt from banks to finance building repairs.

Since 2002, the number of apartments affordable to low-income New Yorkers has declined by close to 45%. In historically Black Harlem, where once no one thought white people would ever want to live, white people have begun moving in and rents have increased 90% since 2002. In Brooklyn during that same period, 50,000 Black residents moved out, while the white population grew by 37,000. Many residents barely recognize the neighborhoods they grew up in. It is not simply the displaced who suffer from gentrification; working class residents who hold on in gentrifying neighborhoods also lose their community; they become impoverished by the increase in the cost of living and criminalized by the intensifying police presence.

As part of the neoliberal assault on the social welfare state across the country, all levels of government have disinvested dramatically from public housing. Given who lives in public housing, poor and working class non-white people, this disinvestment can only be understood as a racist attack on working class communities of color in general, and disinvestment in Black lives in particular. Cities around the country have used this disinvestment as a pretext to privatize and demolish much of their public housing stock. New York City is unique in that its public housing residents have successfully organized against privatization, maintaining most of the public housing stock; it is the last bastion of affordable housing in the city. However, the disinvestment has lead to a $7 billion deficit for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and causes living conditions that are literally killing Black and Brown public housing residents.

Against this backdrop enters liberal Mayor de Blasio. Soon after his election, he released an “Affordable Housing Plan” that proposed building 80,000 new units of “affordable” housing through “inclusionary zoning”, where private developers get tax-funded subsidies if a certain percentage of the apartments they develop are below market rate. The Mayor also released a public housing plan: “Next Generation NYCHA.[ref]The New York City Housing Authority is in charge of providing low and medium income housing for New York City residents.[/ref]” The plan would reduce the public housing agency’s 7 billion capital deficit by squeezing more money out of residents (through measures like more aggressive rent collection and increased parking fees), privatization, and gentrification. Furthermore, in order to reach his housing construction goals, the plan calls for private development on the land within public housing communities. Essentially, his plan is to “save public housing” at the expense of poor people of color.

As a tenant argued at a public hearing, “What de Blasio calls 100% affordable is in fact 100% gentrification!” In order to qualify for the so-called “affordable” apartments the Mayor wants to build on their land, a family has to earn at least $46,800 year, but public housing residents earn an average of only $20,000 a year. As Samuel Stein writes in his article "de Blasio's Doomed Housing Plan,”

“It’s not just that it doesn’t produce enough units, or that the apartments it creates aren’t affordable, though both observations are undeniably true. The real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it marshals a multitude of rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification. What will happen when these rich people arrive? Rents in the surrounding area will rise; neighborhood stores will close; more working-class people will be displaced by gentrification than will be housed in the new inclusionary complexes.”

In response to the Mayor’s plan for private development in public housing, one group of housing justice organizations is saying “Yes, if” and another group says,  “No, and.”  Both strategies oppose the building of market rate housing, but only the No, and strategy opposes private development.  The Yes, if strategy says that yes, the city can lease public land to private developers if developments are 100% “affordable” and the level of affordability is deeper. These proponents state that the movement cannot stop gentrification and so should fight for as many concessions as possible. With a Democratic mayoral administration pushing the privatization plan with the support of many liberals, the fight to stop gentrification becomes even more difficult.

We, on the No, and strategy say no to any private development on public land, and have proposed a People’s NYCHA Plan. The plan would fill the New York City Housing Authority’s deficit with funds from all levels of government and taxes on the rich. It would also expand rent control and public housing to meet the affordable housing needs of poor and working class New Yorkers.

Those of us fighting for the People’s NYCHA Plan are not naive. We have done a power analysis and understand what we are up against. But, as leading 21st century socialist theorist Marta Harneker writes,

...to be a realist doesn't mean to fall for the conservative vision of politics conceived as the art of the possible. For the left, politics must be the art of making the impossible possible...the art of constructing social and political forces that are capable of changing the balance of forces to the benefit of the popular movements, so as to make possible in the future what today appears to be impossible.”

The strength of our No, and strategy lies in the anger of most public housing residents towards private development on public land. We see this as an organizing opportunity to build power.  While there are no guarantees, when an organizer who understands the art of building relationships doubles down on the people’s anger, massive mobilizations can occur, organizations can grow exponentially, and campaigns that appeared unwinnable can be won. We should dare to win rather than playing it safe.

While the Yes, if strategy is driven by a reformist politic that prioritizes short term improvement of material conditions for a relatively small group of people, the No, and is driven by how to best advance a political and economic transformation of society that provides decent affordable housing for all. Much like the squatters of the 80s and 90s, a key part of the No, and long-term strategy is to take land out of the hands of speculative capitalists and make it public. A successful Yes, if campaign would move us in the opposite direction, giving away public land to private developers. It would reinforce the neoliberal narrative of market solutions and open the door for more privatization. This strategy of fighting for gentrification-lite is akin to fighting for a better seat on a sinking ship.

If organized in the correct way, even a defeated No, and campaign would change the narrative around privatization, expand the base of progressive mass organizations, and cohere a social bloc of public housing residents and private housing tenants. While we often gauge our power by our ability to win concessions, we should not assume that winning concessions necessarily builds power nor that losing campaigns necessarily means losing power. In fact, right alongside the reform victories that bolster our confidence, “glorious defeats” also have their role in accumulating the wisdom and creating the moral conditions that will allow for greater victories in the future.

We should not eschew our moral responsibility to improve conditions as much as possible under the current system nor the strategic value of winning reform struggles in smashing that system. However, we cannot prioritize short term gains for a few at the expense of a long term strategy that will liberate us all.

written by Gabriel Strachota [ref]Gabriel Strachota is the NYC Chapter Organizer for Community Voices Heard, a member-led multi-racial organization, principally women of color and low-income families in New York State that builds power to secure social, economic, and racial justice.[/ref] (Community Voices Heard, US)